- Manual scavenging survey was started by Ministry of Social Justice in 2017
- Census 2011 figures put the number of manual scavengers in India at 7 lakh
- Many states are yet to set up registration camps for manual scavengers
New Delhi: It is a regular routine for 22-year-old Jaspal Singh. A resident of Delhi’s Ghitorni, wakes up every morning, packs himself a light lunch and then sets out to clean sewers and toilets. Jaspal is continuing in the profession of his father, Swarn Singh, who lost his life last year due to suffocation while cleaning a sewer. Jaspal like his father is a manual scavenger, a demeaning job that is legally banned in India since 1993. But despite the legal invalidity, the profession thrives and so does the fatal consequences of this dangerous work. 2017 saw the death of more than 40 manual scavengers across India, and caused much uproar among activists working to rescue and rehabilitate manual scavengers. One of the problems in effective eradication of this profession has been the reluctance of States to declare the official number of existing manual scavengers. In 2017, the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment began conducting a fresh survey across 18 states for a headcount of manual scavengers. The Ministry, however, failed to meet its April 30 deadline to complete the survey.
The survey, which is presently being carried out across 164 districts in 18 states, aims to identify people engaged in manual scavenging and are yet to rehabilitated by the state. Earlier, states like Telangana, Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh and several others had either denied the existence of, or reported meagre numbers of manual scavengers. But lack of cooperation between the Ministry of Social Justice and states has resulted in the survey missing its deadline. A ministry official said that many states are yet to set up registration camps for manual scavengers, which is why the process has become slow.
The state governments were asked to setup registration camps, but apart from Kerala, which has sent 600 applications, not many states have been active. The survey has become sluggish because unless we get a confirmed headcount of manual scavengers across the states, we cannot take steps for their rehabilitation,” said an official from the Ministry of Justice and Empowerment.
Since manual scavenging is illegal in India, as per the Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, states are yet to have a proper database of manual scavengers, as their existence or employment by government departments, could land states into legal troubles. The apathy of states towards manual scavengers has once again been highlighted with the survey not being completed on time, says activist Beswada Wilson, who won the Magsaysay Award for his contribution towards eradicating manual scavenging.
“This survey would have given a proper count of all the manual scavengers in the country, and enabled the central government and state governments to maintain a database of such workers and monitor their rehabilitation. But the apathy of states has once again made it difficult to work towards the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. The survey must be completed immediately by the states and the information handed over to the Union Ministry of Social Justice,” said Beswada Wilson, founder and convenor, Safai Karmachari Andolan.
Tamil Nadu, where 294 deaths have been recorded due to manual scavenging in the last 10 years, accounts for the highest number of deaths due to the practice. The state’s commissioner for municipal administration G. Prakash said that the state is still figuring out the proper definition of manual scavenging and hence, has not yet submitted data to the Centre. The state administration classifies someone as a manual scavenger if he/she handles human faecal matter without adequate protection, but not someone employed in cleaning of sewers.
“There is a difference between the Centre’s definition of manual scavengers and how the state classifies them. We do not want a misrepresentation on the headcount, hence we are yet to submit relevant data to the Centre’s survey,” said Mr Prakash.
Maharashtra which topped the 2011 census with 63,713 manual scavengers has the highest number of manual scavengers in a state in India. P.V. Patole, Additional Commissioner at the Social Justice and Special Assitance Department of the Maharashtra government said that around 3,000 manual scavengers have been rehabilitated in the state. He said that the process of identifying manual scavengers was ongoing and data will soon be shared with the Centre.
The Safai Karmachari Andolan and Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan are continuing to coordinate with states to get the exact headcount of manual scavengers in the country. Safai Karmarachi Andolan convener Beswada Wilson said that once the data is compiled, legal options could be explored on the counts of definition of manual scavenging and its alteration, and why states continue to employ manual scavengers.
“The 1993 legislation states that anyone handling human excreta is a manual scavenger, but the definition needs to go wider as are seeing regular deaths from sewer and septic tank cleaning. The courts should also question the states on why manual scavengers are still employed by municipalities, despite the practice being illegal,” said Mr Wilson.
The Ministry of Social Justice has not given a definite date by when the survey could be expected to reach its completion. The Union Ministry has involved several NGOs as a part of the survey, as certain state governments may want to hide data or information about the existence of manual scavengers. NGOs Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan and Safai Karmachari Andolan have both been asked by the Union Ministry to work with state governments to set up more camps and register manual scavengers, even those without the proof of their profession, to ensure a speedy but fruitful end to the survey and take the first step towards eradicating manual scavenging from the country.